04 September 2014

Countless cubes: How "Mise en place" came to be

In trying to summarize piles and pages of notes for my BookArtObject project, Mise en place,  I have been asking myself "where hasn't it been?" in the two+ years since I chose my title. I mean this conceptually, theme-wise and media-wise.

There have been "countless cubes" over the last couple of years, both for this project and others that popped up along the way. The photo above shows a selection of mockups, mostly from the later stages; the row of four cubes at the front comprises a full set. And here, at last, are some notes on this whole process, beginning with why I chose "Mise en place" as my title...

Most of the one-hundred titles had already been taken by the time I discovered Edition 4 of BookArtObject (BAO), but "Mise en place" was an easy choice for me. I am fascinated by the role that food
and, in the context of my title, its preparationplays in our daily lives, and in the last several years it seems the line between the studio and the kitchen has begun to blur for me. The kitchen can be such a creative space when you consider how many variations you can get from even the most basic set of ingredients simply by varying which herbs, spices and other enhancements you pair them with. And I enjoy the challenge, or "game," of seeing what I can come up with based on what's on hand at any given time.

Though I once considered myself a reluctant cook (I begrudged that cooking took me out of the studio and consumed so much time/had to be repeated day in, day out), I've come to see the appeal
its immediacy/spontaneity, for one. In the studio, the work is often so painstakingly precise. There’s a lot of experimentation, which is accompanied by an equal measure of anxiety, because taking an idea from concept to completion is not usually a smooth process. In the kitchen, though, I don’t worry about whether a new soup, a spur-of-the-moment pasta sauce or my favorite pork roast will come out okay; it just about always does (and is quickly forgotten on the odd occasion that it does not). I find a certain satisfaction in organizing the ingredients, as well as doing the repetitive tasks entailed in mise en place—and the "presentation" of the completed mise en place can be as visually pleasing as the presentation of the meal itself. I like, too, that getting everything in place first allows me more freedom during the actual cooking part; the hands are busy, but somehow the mind is freer. Many a studio dilemma has been solved while chopping onions...

Just as in the studio, I have my favorite kitchen "tools" (a flat-ended wooden "spoon," the marble mortar & pestle, a rubber spatula, the rollicking mezzaluna). I also take pleasure from my collection of containers
curvy white porcelain cups that are perfect for mise en place, a large yellow ceramic bowl I use for hand-mixing, a set of laboratory-inspired glass measuring containers. I believe that material, shape, size and color affect—and have the potential to enhanceexperiences, and am always conscious of such qualities. I am the kind of person who would, for example, rather pour tonic water from a tiny glass bottle than a liter-sized plastic one (into a short glass the same shade as the rind of the sliver of lime!).


Many of the actions that take place in the studio parallel those involved in mise en place, so my initial thought was to make comparisons between the studio and the kitchen. I considered a book with left-hand pages devoted to mise en place in the kitchen, with right-hand pages portraying similar actions in the studio (choosing ingredients versus choosing materials; organizing kitchen tools & equipment versus those for a studio project; measuring & cutting things to size). I collected bits and pieces with the idea creating a series of collages to portray the commonalities between work in the studio and kitchen; I played with abstract designs that derived from the creative process that occurs in both spaces; and I spent a lot of time photographing ingredients, crockery and other kitchen accoutrement.

As I went about exploring these and other ideas in the studio, I made a point of paying attention to what happened each time I went into the kitchen: I noticed the thoughts that floated through my head as I was preparing meals, the aesthetics of the experiencehow the process engaged my senses.

I examined blossom-like artichokes and leathery pomegranates, heavy in my hand...noted the clinking of the shiny stainless steel bowls, cool to the touch...appreciated the reflections and light captured by the glass measuring containers. I breathed in the delicious smells when zesting an orange or grinding a handful of cardamom seeds with the mortar and pestle, discovered the star-shape that appeared when slicing an apple through its middle (then succumbed to the nostalgia for those back-to-school days of every childhood autumn while grating it for apple cake). I noticed how the tears that fell when slicing an onion refreshed my skin...listened to the rhythmic chop, chop, chop, then the sizzle, when I slipped them into the warm olive oil, enjoying how they instantly filled the house with that welcoming and familiar "nearly-dinner-time" feeling.

As I took time to appreciate the qualities of the ingredients, tools & containers, the content for my BAO title began to reflect my direct experience of doing the mise en place for our meals, and I found a new enthusiasm for spending time in the kitchen. Once I decided my artist's book would be primarily kitchen-based, I played with different ways to convey the concept of mise en place: taking the reader through the mise en place for a recipe step-by-step...writing a text about a specific kitchen experience...creating original designs/patterns printed with ingredients/items from the kitchen.


Ideas came and went, but 
Mise en place found its form fairly early in the process: four gradated cubes, ranging from 5x5x5 to 8x8x8 cm (just under two-inches-cubed to a bit over three-inches-cubed), which could "nest" within each other. The nesting idea was of course borrowed from the ubiquitous measuring cups, measuring spoons & sets of mise en place-type bowls that are stacked when not in use. Once I settled on the cube structure, I experimented with different nets (i.e. the organization of cube faces). These I printed onto A3 paper to serve as the basis for sketching out ideas and notes before trimming/folding them to see how they played out in three dimensions.

The imagery of "the voluptuous curves of a pear" was with me from the very beginning, as was the desire to use text creatively. When I came up with the idea to shape the text to follow the curves of a pear, everything finally started to fall in place.

Another image that I am quite fond of is the pomegranate, a fruit that has perhaps inspired more contemplation for me than any other ingredient. I love the leathery red skin, the little "crown" left behind by the blossom, the experience of removing the gem-like seeds, with their contrast of sweet and tart as they burst in my mouth. Deseeding a pomegranate must be one of the more intense mise en place tasks! From quite early on I wanted to somehow include a text about the process of extracting the seeds from a pomegranate, to explain how I consider it "a meditation of sorts—a reminder to pause and notice the beauty of everyday moments." The text wraps around the largest cube and can be read one long line at a time, by spinning the cube.

After exploring several media for conveying the content (drawing, collaging, printing from handmade stamps), I eventually gravitated toward designing on the computer. One reason was for the sake of practicality: this was my first experience creating an edition (as opposed to a one-of-a-kind piece), and being able to replicate everything seventeen times (the number I chose for my edition) was vastly simplified by being able to design and print digitally. In choosing this route I was able to avoid the scanning/reproducing step, which never seems to replicate an original painting/drawing as well as I would like. Another benefit was that computer-generated text allowed me to include more content on the relatively small "page" dimensions than hand-written text would have. I chose the streamlined Avenir Next Condensed for much of the text, and contrasted it with the more flowing, though still compact, Respective; the shaped text is Myanmar MN. The palette was inspired by the illustrations of the fruits & vegetables.

Working with Adobe Illustrator (most of the illustrations were complete by
this point, but some of the individual elements can be distinguished)...

I created the text/images in Adobe Illustrator (I must say I quite enjoy "drawing" with the "pens"), then printed the cubes with Epson UltraChrome K3 inks on Epson Radiant White Watercolor Paper. I tried many papers, of various weights and textures, but my Epson performs best with fine art papers that are coated. I needed something that could be scored & folded easily, but was sturdy enough to hold the form of a cube, and
 finally discovered the 192g Epson "watercolor" paper (though, oddly, the texture of the back/non-printable side is more similar to watercolor paper than the coated side).

In the spirit of the mise en place concept, I had (a bit cheekily) considered at one point simply letting each BAO recipient do the full assembly, but opted instead for fairly minimal "interaction" on their part. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, the cubes
would have arrived already trimmed & scored, and packaged in one of the papers used for wrapping oranges (in any given crate of oranges a handful will be wrapped in colorful paper printed with the name of the fruit producer &/or address &/or logo/design). In keeping with the kitchen-theme, each paper-wrapped package was then tied with a length of kitchen string.

A reminder of the packaging up of Mise en place
...and of the contents of each package once opened

I arranged the cubes such that when the package is turned over to undo the paper the largest cube is on top (recognized by the title/definition of "mise en place"). Under Cube I are Cubes II, III & IV, respectively. 
I folded each cube into an accordion, for its initial "reading" (see photos below), but these are easily assembled into cubesone of the side faces has a flap with a strip of double-sided adhesive to join the tab to what becomes the adjacent side.

The top & bottom faces fold in to complete the cube; I suggested the recipients use a bit of glue on the edge of each flap to permanently close them, although if the top flap of each is left unattached the cubes can be nested. In the photo below you can see Cube III nested within Cube IV, with Cube III stacked on top of Cube IV (and earlier trials behind them).


One thing is definitely true: I have come to enjoy and appreciate mise en place—and my time in the kitchen in generalconsiderably more since taking on my BAO title. And along the way, other things have become clearer to me...for example that, as much as I love the getting-my-hands-dirty kind of studio work, I have a great time designing on the computer too. I've also realized that I want to continue to pursue both my love affair with photographing food and a growing interest in experimenting with/developing recipes. These discoveries have guided me toward a couple of new long-term projects.

I am also thrilled about my growing collection of books from the other artists in my group; it’s always wonderful to see images on the web, but there is nothing like holding a piece and experiencing it with all of your senses. My thanks to all of the artists for the many months of inspiration as each book was completed and posted on the BAO blog—and to Sara Bowen, BAO's founding artist.


  1. I commented on the BAO blog so shan't repeat myself here. For others, please see http://bookartobject.blogspot.com.au/2014/09/countless-cubes-how-mise-en-place-came.html

    1. Thanks so much, Diane...I did see your comment on the BAO blog, and appreciate your kind words...
      - Lisa

  2. Well, that was certainly worth the wait! What a great story - told with images and words and bringing together so many wonderful notions. How intriguing that new projects and goals emerged, and that existing activities took on greater pleasure. A fabulous post and a most beautiful outcome.

    1. Thank you for your generous comment, Fiona! I know it was a very long time coming, and the result seems so "simple" considering the months of work that went into the project, but I will say that I found the process to be quite delightful!
      - Lisa

  3. I've visited this post numerous times and get lost in your words, process and photos each time. Since I'm incapable this morning of being truly articulate (the words are hiding right now), may I simply say, Brava my dear! Brava!

    1. Jennifer ~ thanks so much for stopping in to read/look - and for commenting - it's always good to know that others are getting something out of one's work/documentation of it, isn't it? And your "brava" makes me very content!!
      - Lisa

      P.S. To each of you who took a moment to comment: so sorry to be replying so belatedly...I published the post just before a chaotic weekend began and haven't been back to "Blogland" again 'til now!

  4. I came here to visit your most recent post but just kept scrolling down and down ..... and down. An absolute feast for the eyes but your writing and thew way you lead aux along is just beautiful Lisa. You have such a gift and I have been delighted reading about your response to this project and at the end of the day, after a HUGE effort in design and creation - the work is just gorgeous.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, Susan. I'm so happy to hear that you enjoyed your "scrolling session"...and the conclusion of the BAO project. (It feels SO good to have that completed at last!)
      - Lisa


Thank you for joining in on the dialogue; I appreciate your comments!
{Sorry about enabling word recognition, but I'm hoping it will alleviate the spam.}

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...